In the end, it was a nice cosmic coincidence. Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s strong man, was seven years older but survived Malcolm Fraser by three days.
Both in their time were credited with a similar world-view. Fraser was minister for the army and later defence minister at the height of the Vietnam war; Lee was the leading anti-communist of south-east Asia. In the early 1980s, when the Fraser government was divided over continued recognition of the Khmer Rouge, Andrew Peacock reportedly complained that Fraser had “a weakness for listening to Harry Lee’s arguments.”
The Cold War now seems a remote era, yet it continued to inform Lee’s outlook for the remainder of his career. His stewardship of Singapore – no-one ever doubted that he remained in power, whether officially prime minister or not – was based on the idea that control could never be relaxed lest the forces of subversion should take advantage. There were always enemies, real or imaginary.
Fraser, however, came to deviate in spectacular fashion from the Cold War line. Having once been a strong supporter of the American alliance, he became increasingly sceptical and then openly hostile, although he was always reluctant to acknowledge that his own views had changed. He maintained that the world had changed around him, and there was an element of truth in this, but his own transformation was nonetheless remarkable.
I’ve written quite a lot about Fraser over the years and don’t really feel the need to revisit it. (Those who are interested can read the most recent substantial piece here, five years ago in the Spectator.) I never found him a sympathetic figure; even when I agreed with what he said – which in his later years was more often than not – his attitude grated on me. I gather that was not an untypical reaction.
But for all his faults, there was always a sort of residual liberalism in Fraser that was lacking in Lee. His ideological loyalty was to “Asian values”: the idea that democracy and human rights could be ignored because they were “western” constructs rather than universal aspirations.
In practice, Lee did not always give his authoritarianism free rein. Singapore remained a freer place than most of its neighbors, and the institutional structures are there for the development of genuine democracy if his successors are willing to allow it. No doubt he will always be honored there – he is not someone to be swept under the carpet, like a Lenin or a Suharto – but his legacy is very much a mixed one.
It’s a measure of how perverse the right’s worldview has become that Fraser, the flawed champion of human rights, has been demonised, while Lee the authoritarian has mostly been revered. I’m not in Australia to read News Corp’s coverage (and indeed probably couldn’t bring myself to do so even if I was), but I’ll wager that its praise for Lee is less equivocal than that for Fraser.
Neither man deserves demonisation, but neither was a saint by any means. Best perhaps to leave it at that.